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INTERVIEW: EICCA TOPPINEN, APOCALYPTICA – August 2016

| 20 September 2016 | Reply

INTERVIEW: EICCA TOPPINEN, APOCALYPTICA – August 2016
By Shane Pinnegar

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Combining cellos with heavy metal proved an inspired concept for Finnish band Apocalyptica, and they head to Australia for several shows in September to show us what they are made of. SHANE PINNEGAR got founding member Eicca (pronounced Ay-Ka) Toppinen on the phone from sunny Moscow, where they were touring, to discuss the formation and evolution of the band.

Wednesday, September 21: Capitol, Perth
Friday, September 23: Prince Bandroom, Melbourne
Saturday, September 24: Metro, Sydney
Sunday, September 25: Max Watts. Brisbane

To start at the start, Toppinen explains that he took cello lessons from a very young age.

“I started to play cello when I was nine years old and the other guys, they started even younger – they were like five or six years old. We’ve been playing cello, more or less, all our lives.”

The obvious question at this point is, ‘what made you think, ‘let’s play heavy metal with the cello?’’

“I was in another cello band called Total Cello Ensemble – you can find it on internet,” he says. “It was a six cello group and with that group we did all kind of different stuff. We played even Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze. We played Argentinian tangos, all kind of stuff, very great sound installations. We knew the cello band is very suitable for different music styles. As a big heavy metal fan, I started to think that, ‘okay, if you can play Purple Haze, we should be able to play For Whom The Bell Tolls.’

“That was the starting point. We started to play, basically, for our own fun. First times we performed, we played in the student parties of Sibelius Academy where we were studying. We didn’t have any plans to make any albums or any kind of career out of this – it was just because we loved the metal music. We thought, ‘okay, why not to play that with the instruments we can play the best?’

“For us, it was very natural,” Toppinen continues, “when we got asked to do the first album, after our first performance for a metal audience, we thought the guy is out of his mind. We were like, ‘are you really serious, you want to get us in studio to make a record out of this?’ We didn’t have any expectations.”

Was it an instant success, or did promoters in the music industry think you were crazy to even want to do this?

“I think people really thought that it’s a great idea,” says Toppinen, “because the guy who [signed us], it was a small record label we did the first album with. He signed us because he saw the reaction of the metal audience we played [to the] first time. People started to stage dive and they were singing along the songs. I think he signed us just because of the audience reaction, not because we had been sounding great. It was more about what was the effect on the audience.

“It was very surprising, I think it was great. We had one guy on Universal, or maybe Polygram, and he was pushing hard, sending faxes, and sending the music outside in the big company, outside of Finland, that was the reason how we started to get international really. Then the whole thing started to roll. I don’t know. I can’t really recall people being negative. I think people were very supportive in the beginning.”

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Before Australia Apocalyptica are in Japan, and in December they visit Mexico, before more European shows in the New Year. From humble beginnings not expecting any kind of career out of this, it must be surprising to still be touring the world more than twenty years later.

“It was, definitely,” exclaims Toppinen. “When the first album was done, we thought if we sell a thousand copies and if we get a couple of gigs, that’s fantastic. That was our expectations. Now, that first album – which we actually re-released just two weeks ago as a remastered version, for the twentieth anniversary – we’ve sold the original album almost two million copies. Comparing to expectation of thousand, I think that’s something pretty much different!

“Actually, it took a couple of years after the release of the first album that I stopped doing other things than Apocalyptica,” he reveals. “It was basically with the third album when I started to write original music for the band. At that time, this started to be the full time job. First couple of years, it was more like we were touring, playing gigs, maybe eighty gigs a year. We got a few gigs, but we were still doing our classical works and studies on the side.

It must have been a very big step to go from doing fun, classically inspired Metallica covers to suddenly writing and recording original songs in a metal style.

“Yeah, it was – [but] it was a very necessary step,” Toppinen admits. “We did a Christmas single in the end of ’96, we did a version of the Little Drummer Boy song, but the arrangement was very free from the original. That was the point that I got the idea, ‘maybe I should try to write something original for the band.’ After doing two albums of covers, we have a couple of originals already on the second album, but we found it’s the only way to go, the only interesting way to continue the band, is to go into original songs.

“It was a big step, but we had no choice. The record company tried to force us to make one more cover album, but we had no chance. We felt it, ‘this is our direction to go, whatever happens.’ Whether it’s successful or not, we don’t care. Musically, it’s the only way to continue.”

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Eicca ponders the theory that some countries – specifically European countries – have a stronger connection to, and ‘get’ classical music more than newer worlds like Australia or America.

“Maybe, maybe. It’s hard to say because we start touring Europe already from the beginning. Our history as a band is way longer here than in Australia, [where] we played first time 2012. It’s very hard to compare. Of course, the big classical tradition is presently in East Europe. I can really see that the feel is different in here because the heritage of classical music is so massive and so strong. When we came out breaking the tradition completely, that was something revolutionary for these people.

“It’s hard to compare – it’s a little bit also mixed because of the touring history we’ve had. I love to play Australia, we’ve had two fantastic tours there so far, and after having the last festival, can’t wait to get four headlining shows there.”

When Apocalyptica started they played their shows seated, presenting themselves quite formally. That has evolved over the years and now the band members often play their cellos standing, or even moving around the stage. As they change the way they play their instrument live, did it change the style of their playing at all?

“Yeah, it’s completely different world today than it was twenty years ago,” he laughs. “It’s been a natural development. I think we haven’t had chairs in the show, except for some ballads, but, in general, for over ten years anymore. The whole playing technique is very different. When the playing technique gets different, that also gives you different possibilities on stuff you write and you can write way more tricky stuff.

“A good example is like when we did the first album, it was restricted with songs we can pick up because of the abilities of the instrument and our playing skills as classical players. We were great classical players, but still, there were a lot of Metallica songs that we felt they are not possible technically to play it by cello. Good song example is Battery which we released this year. We develop the playing technique in a way that, basically, nothing is impossible today. We can basically play whichever song we can do. We have recorded Slayer, Angel of Death. We’ve done Battery, this kind of crazy, crazy fast songs which would be impossible for classical players, I would say.”

January saw the debut performance of Toppinen’s own opera, Indigo, co-written with Apocalyptica bandmate Perttu Kivilaakso. He remains extremely proud of the achievement and response to the work.

“That was very interesting project,” he explains. “When we dived into it and when we took that gig, we maybe didn’t really understand how big a thing it is. I realised just before the premiere, we were touring in Japan, [and] we saw from Facebook and everywhere, our friends [saying], ‘we’re having an opera,’ the singers posting things, realising, ‘oh, shit,’ there was hundreds of people working on the fucking piece we wrote!

“This is awesome to realise, ‘well, it’s actually a pretty big thing we did,’ [that] we were not thinking about while we were writing with Perttu that opera. It was great feeling to be in premiere and see that it really was fantastic, the whole presentation was really successful. It was a great moment. I really hope that the opera can tour somewhere else as well, that some other opera houses will pick it up and perform. It’s pretty good.”

It must feel good to be challenging yourself musically as well.

“Yeah, I always been maybe a little bit stupid, or that I’m brave, or that I’m just both,” he laughs. “I always like to challenge myself. I’ve been very lucky to get great opportunities to write music for something else and Apocalyptica, and always under good conditions. First time I did music for theater, I made live music for Dostoevsky Crime And Punishment for The Finnish National Theater. That turned out great. Then I got a chance to write a score for one Finnish drama movie. I got the Finnish, kind of, Oscar for the music for that. Then we did the Wagner Reloaded [show and live album] which was absolutely a crazy massive project.

“[I am] always taking challenges that I don’t have the experience to do it, but I want to learn it. I’m not afraid of any kind of project. I think that’s been good in the past because that has given me great opportunities to challenge myself and learn new things. Luckily, everything has gone well.”

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With eight studio albums now, what will Apocalyptica’s set list for Australia be like?

“Of course, because we are on the Shadowmaker tour, that’s a big portion of the new songs. It’s more like a retrospective – we’re going to have songs from, basically, all times of this twenty years [career], from every album there’s something in the show. It’s going to be great fun. It’s going to be a very diverse show. The show’s going to show all the sides of Apocalyptica because there are plenty of different sides of this band and the music we make.

“It’s going to be everything from ballads, Bittersweet, to something like that, to Inquisition Symphony, something really crazy, In The Hall of The Mountain King, a couple of Metallica tunes. It’s a combination of all these years. Of course, we have got a lot of new songs and, of course, Franky [Perez] is touring with us so it’s a balance between instrumental music and some vocal songs. It’s great fun.”

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Having worked with a lot of other acts along the way, doing guest appearances with others, and having others guest on Apocalyptica records, is there one act above all that Toppinen would like to collaborate with for a few songs?

“Of course, James Hetfield would be ultimate option and hopefully we can do one day a song with James,” enthuses the avowed Metallica fan. “We’ve been always talking like Bjork, or Tom Waits, or something really different than just metal singers, you know. It’s like the wish list could be endless. There are so many very interesting artists in the world that could be very exciting to collaborate with. Now we are with Franky and that’s how we like it at the moment. Next year is going to be a concept tour, the anniversary tour, Plays Metallic by Four Cellos, we’re going to play shows full of Metallica covers and very old-school style with four cellos.

“We have not decided the next album, what it’s going to be like and whether it’s going to be with Franky or whether it’s going to be instrumental. We always want to keep things pretty open and not to be set too much upfront musically, what we do. I think, for us, it’s been always the right way to do. I think that’s the reason why we still exist. That with every album, we’ve been focusing on doing music what we are excited at the moment. That’s why the albums are very honest to ourselves.

“Therefore, if I think about next release which we’re going to work on next year, I can’t tell you now what kind of music we like to do, or what’s the main interest. Anyway, in this band, the cello is the core and we want to be flexible what happens around that instrument.”

Shane

Category: Interviews

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